Cheap Thrills: An interview With Director E.L. Katz

As a writer, E.L. Katz has been kicking around the horror industry for years. After peddling articles in fanzines, he got his start as a screenwriting partner for director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) on the films Pop Skull and Home Sick. From there he wrote further indie horror flicks like Autopsy and The Unholy, but like most people working in the film industry, what he always wanted to do was direct. Well, the man has finally gotten a chance with Cheap Thrills and it’s one hell of a debut. Teaming up with sicko screenwriter Trent Haaga (Citizen Toxie, Deadgirl), E.L. Katz delivered a deliciously dark comedy/horror film that grabs the audience by the throat from the first frame and refuses to let go until they’ve either laughed or puked their guts out.

The brilliant and perpetually underrated character actor Pat Healy (Ghost World, Compliance, The Innkeepers) stars as a burned out never-was losing his job on the same day his wife finds an eviction notice. While out drinking the pain away with his best friend (Ethan Embry), the sadsack duo are spotted by an odd husband and wife pair played by David Koechner (Champ from Anchorman) and Sara Paxton (The Innkeepers). The wealthy and slightly insane couple soon offer Healy and Embry large sums of cash for stupid activities like taking shots and slapping strippers on the bottom. Then as the night wears on, the games get more arch and psychotic and the monetary reward rises with it (like I said, it’s a horror flick as much as it is a comedy). A mixture of sick laughs, social commentary, and harsh chills, Cheap Thrills is one of the best indie genre movies to hit screens in ages and CGM was thrilled (cheaply, of course) to chat with E.L. Katz about his wild and unpredictable debut.

 

Comics Gaming Magazine: First off, I can’t believe that you managed to shoot this movie in 14 days. Were you concerned that you’d be able to actually pull this one off in that time? Aside from all the production logistics, it’s a performance driven movie and that’s not a lot of time to get things right.

elkatzE.L. Katz: (Laughs) I felt really nervous. I kept asking for more days, but no one would give them to me. It was one of those things where it was a first film so I was going to accept whatever hand I was dealt. There wasn’t a lot of money in the budget, so you could only argue up to a point. But I think that it was never something that I thought was going to be super doable (Laughs). By the end of the shoot I only had time for one or two takes for incredibly important scenes. It wasn’t a feasible way to make a movie. So we kind of lucked out, I think.

 

CGM: I just assumed you wrote the movie while filming it given your background, but pleasantly surprised to see Trent Haaga’s credit, because I really love Deadgirl and now feel comfortable thinking that movie is as funny as I always thought it was. Can I assume it was his cracked tone that got you onboard the project?

EK: I’m a big fan of Deadgirl as well. It’s a really bizarrely truthful yet still a cynical, horrible, evil little movie. I really had a good time with it and have known Trent all the way back to his work at Troma. I always thought he had a really fun outspoken voice, just a sharp dude. I have a writers dinner once a month in LA where a bunch of screenwriters, mostly genre guys, sit around and complain. One of those guys thought, “Why don’t we start a production company of screenwriters?” We were going to have ultimate freedom and do the craziest shit. It was very idealistic and I was one of the guys told to go out and find material. I asked everyone in the group to give me the most subversive thing they’d ever written. Trent gave me the script which he’d originally written when he got agents in Hollywood thinking he could sell it to a studio and the agents said, “Are you fucking kidding me? Put it away.” I really liked it. I thought it had a really strong basic concept from beginning to end and it was even written to be a low budget production. I thought it would be perfect, but the production company never came together.

I really thought there was something to the script though, so I asked Trent if I could try to get it made. So we did. There was some inherent humor in there, but I wanted to pump it up even more so that you couldn’t quite tell what genre it was for most of the movie. So I actually worked with a couple of different writer friends on the script. I ended up working pretty closely with David Chirillo on a draft and then I worked on it myself for a while. Ultimately, I always had Trent’s evil sense of humor in mind and that’s still there. But it is something that I really got my hands dirty with. It felt much easier to direct it once I’d had some sort of a hand in the creation of the script.

 

CGM: Did any of the central concept come out of the fact that you, David, Trent and pretty well everyone else in the movie come out of an indie horror world where it’s not uncommon to do ridiculous things out of desperation for money?

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EK: (Laughs) I think you might be on to something there. Maybe after years of being humiliated and beat up as a screenwriter for hire, that kind of stuff seems appealing. It was kind of an experiment in a way. When you watch as many genre movies as I do, as soon as you find out what kind of movie you’re watching, you’re ahead of the filmmakers. I really wanted to play with the experience of watching a movie more than anything else. You know, toying with where people thought it would go.

 

CGM: How difficult to retain credibility and realism all the way through while gradually ratcheting up the intensity of the situation?

EK: Well, it’s sort of like an improv exercise. People could only use what would be available to them in a normal situation. There could be no Saw contraption. But a butcher knife in a kitchen? That feels right. I think as long as you keep things within the realm of a real situation, you can get away with a lot. You could be at a house party and have a knife pulled out. Everything in the movie is possible. So, it was important to keep that in mind and play with it if things seem too crazy on set. That was very important though. Because if the film had become over the top, the audience wouldn’t be able to relate anymore. The most important thing for me was that the audience felt they were at a weird party where something went wrong.

 

CGM: I’m very fond of The Innkeepers and I really intrigued by seeing Pat Healy and Sara Paxton together again here because I came out of that movie desperately wanting those crazy kids to get together. You made it happen here, but under the worst circumstances imaginable. I was wondering if that was something that you were conscious of in anyway or if they were just two best actors for those roles?

EK: (Laughs) I think I was in tunnel vision when I was putting this together. I honestly forgot how much I enjoyed their dynamic in The Innkeepers and really just thought about them separately when I cast them here. We cast Pat first and then Sara’s name came up so we went for her. But I never thought of it as a reunion. You never want to be too overly informed by your friends’ stuff, so you try to keep that out of your head or else it can become too self-referential.

 

CGM: How pleased was Pat Healy on the day he didn’t have to wear the broken nose make up anymore?

EK: (Laughs) It was kind of like Chinatown, he had that thing on his face for most of the move and it was not comfortable. But I guess for him, it was useful. It changes you. You’re constantly feeling some discomfort, so that’s something you can grasp onto. He’s really smart, so he’s always looking for those tricks.

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CGM: What on earth made you think David Koechner could be so creepy? Was there something you saw in other movies that made you think he could do this?

EK: I’d only ever seen him as a really delightful guy. I’ve always enjoyed his performances. It’s not like when people saw a certain desperation in Robin Williams comedy that they could use in more complicated characters. I always thought that he had an old school character actor vibe like a Walter Matthau. I enjoyed seeing someone like Matthau popping up in 70s crime movies. From his other movies, you could tell David was like a bull in his performances. You put him in this party and he was going to control it. I was never concerned about the creepiness, because I knew that was just going to come out from what his character wanted. I think sometimes we look for actors who can be overtly menacing in these roles, but that’s not always the best way to go. If you get someone who seems really charming and fun and then all of a sudden he wants some strange dude to do things to his wife, it’s just going to become creepy. The actions will take care of that. In terms of the performance, as long as he’s a real actor you’ll get there.

 

CGM: Do you think you’ll work with Adam Wingard again or do you think you’ll stick to directing your own movies at this point?

EK: I think we’re on our own now. We’re still good friends. He took a look at this film during editing and helped me get my DP and my composer. We’re in the same space, but I don’t know if we’d work together again. I just can’t imagine what capacity that would happen anymore. I guess maybe we could produce each other’s movies or something right now. But, we’re still friends. So we’ll see what happens.

 

CGM: Finally I’ve got to ask, what is your short for ABC’s Of Death 2? Have you done it yet?

EK: Yeah, I shot it and submitted it. I can’t give much away. I can’t tell you what my letter is or anything like that, but stylistically it’s completely different from Cheap Thrills and it’s action packed… sort of. It’s like a bad 80s late night action flick. You’ll see. It’s a strange, strange thing.